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Art Review: Carnegie Museum's 'Small Prints, Big Artists'

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:09 p.m.
Carnegie Museum of Art
Jacques Bellange 'The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy,' after 1613
Carnegie Museum of Art
Jan and Lucas van Doetechum, after an anonymous imitator of Hieronymus Bosch; 'The Temptation of Saint Christopher'
Carnegie Museum of Art
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 'Self Portrait with Saskia,' 1636
Carnegie Museum of Art
Peter Paul Rubens' 'Saint Catherine in the Clouds,' early 1620s
Carnegie Museum of Art
Albrecht Durer's 'Knight, Death, and the Devil,' 1513

The exhibit “Small Prints, Big Artists,” which recently opened at the Carnegie Museum of Art, is a rare gem simply for one reason.

“They are ultrasensitive to light,” guest curator Linda Batis says. “So, they can't be shown that frequently.”

Many of the prints have long been in the museum's collection, some for 100 years, says Batis, who was associate curator of fine arts at the museum from 1992 to 2005.

“The museum started collecting prints around 1915, shortly after it was founded, and continues even until now,” she says. “There are several prints in the exhibition that have been recently added to the collection.”

Focusing on prints dating from 1470 to 1700, Batis says the exhibit offers a “chronological overview” of early printmaking, as executed via four techniques: woodcut, engraving, etching and drypoint.

Located in the Heinz Galleries, the exhibit features 235 masterworks from the museum's exceptional collection of more than 8,000 prints. The intimately scaled woodcuts, engravings and etchings reveal the development of printmaking as a true art form.

On display are some of the most iconic images in the collection, such as Rembrandt's etching “Self Portrait with Saskia” from 1636.

In it, the artist wears an elaborate velvet hat, opulent coat and holds a pen. He is looking out at the viewer directly, while the disproportionately small Saskia, his wife, is relegated to the background.

Rembrandt, the Dutch painter whose full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), is likely the most recognizable name in the exhibit. Throughout the centuries, he was highly regarded as a painter, but today, he is best known as a master printmaker, particularly for his self-portraits like this one.

Batis says the concept of the self-portrait as an exploration of one's own psyche did not really exist in the 17th century. “Most modern scholars believe that Rembrandt made the prints as models, or ‘tronies,' as they were then known,” Batis says. “He was also producing works for sale and publicizing himself as an artist.”

This print is one of nearly 90 by Rembrandt in the collection.

Like Rembrandt, German Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) rose to fame as a painter and printmaker, but history, too, has proved him a supreme master of the latter form of artmaking. His “Knight, Death, and the Devil” from 1513 is a stunning example among 21 others by the artist on display. Portraying the “moral life of the Christian soldier,” Batis says, “it's one of the finest impressions (of this print) known to exist.”

Lovers of detail will no doubt take delight in some intricate works, such as an engraving and etching by Jan and Lucas van Doetechum (Dutch, active 1551-1605 and active 1554-1572 respectively) based on a work by an anonymous imitator of fantastical painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).

There is also fine detail in “The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy” from 1613, an etching and engraving by Jacques Bellange (French, 1575–1616), a court painter to Dukes Charles III and Henri II of Lorraine from 1602 until his early death in 1616.

Batis says that as court artist, Bellange painted portraits, religious and mythological subjects and designed theatrical productions. However, “few paintings and original drawings are known to us,” she says, “but his 47 prints are his primary legacy.”

This one is particularly unique. Here, Saint Lucy is rushed by soldiers in unusually detailed costumes, yet, she has a luminous presence that causes her to stand out from the melee depicted.

“He was a very unusual printmaker,” Batis says. “This is a spectacular print, and it is quite large. Very elaborate costumes.”

Other excellent examples abound. Among works representing the Flemish painters of the Baroque period, Peter Paul Rubens' (1577-1640) “Saint Catherine in the Clouds” from the early 1620s is a standout.

The print is based on Rubens' ceiling painting for the newly built Jesuit church in Antwerp. The artist shows Saint Catherine from below as if we were looking up at her on the ceiling.

Batis says the process for creating this print may have been as follows: “Rubens probably etched the design on the plate and printed a few copies. Then, by pressing one impression onto another sheet of paper, Rubens made a proof that he corrected by hand.”

Unique to this exhibit are several interactive multimedia displays that explain the processes of printmaking, from tools used to techniques employed, such as how a copper plate is engraved.

“It shows you how an engraving is made, because these are mysterious processes for people,” Batis says. “It will help people get an understanding of how prints are made.”

Though it would be impossible to display all of the prints in the museum's collection in this exhibit, Batis says, “Since 1992, we have never done a show this big, this encyclopaedic.”

And, she says, even though prints were made in multiple, they are all extremely rare.

“People think these are multiples, I can get them anywhere, and, yes, that's true,” Batis says. “But, a lot of the prints, especially the earlier ones, are now so rare that they never come up for sale. And to put together a collection like this today, impossible. They have been absorbed into public and private collections and are simply not obtainable.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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